Se­crecy cloaks Putin talks

US Pres­i­dent Trump hid­den de­tails of pair’s con­ver­sa­tions

The Northern Advocate - - World - United States Greg Miller

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has gone to ex­tra­or­di­nary lengths to con­ceal de­tails of his con­ver­sa­tions with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. On at least one oc­ca­sion he took pos­ses­sion of the notes of his own in­ter­preter and in­structed the lin­guist not to dis­cuss what had tran­spired with other Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, cur­rent and for­mer US of­fi­cials said.

Trump did so after a meet­ing with Putin in 2017 in Ham­burg that was also at­tended by then-Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son. US of­fi­cials learned of Trump’s ac­tions when a White House ad­viser and a se­nior State Depart­ment of­fi­cial sought in­for­ma­tion from the in­ter­preter.

US of­fi­cials said there is no de­tailed record, even in clas­si­fied files, of Trump’s face-to-face in­ter­ac­tions with the Rus­sian leader at five lo­ca­tions over the past two years.

Such a gap would be un­usual in any pres­i­dency, let alone one that Rus­sia sought to in­stall through what US in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have de­scribed as an un­prece­dented cam­paign of elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence.

For­mer US of­fi­cials said that pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents have re­lied on se­nior aides to wit­ness meet­ings and take com­pre­hen­sive notes then shared with other of­fi­cials and de­part­ments.

Trump’s se­crecy sur­round­ing Putin “is not only un­usual by his­tor­i­cal stan­dards, it is out­ra­geous,” said Strobe Tal­bott, a for­mer deputy sec­re­tary of state now at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. “It hand­i­caps the US gov­ern­ment . . . and it cer­tainly gives Putin much more scope to ma­nip­u­late Trump.”

A White House spokesman dis­puted that char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion and said the Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion has sought to “im­prove the re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia” after the Obama Ad­min­is­tra­tion “pur­sued a flawed ‘re­set’ pol­icy that sought en­gage­ment for the sake of en­gage­ment”.

The Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion “has im­posed sig­nif­i­cant new sanc­tions in re­sponse to Rus­sian ma­lign ac­tiv­i­ties,” said the spokesman, who noted that Tiller­son in 2017 “gave a ful­some read­out of the meet­ing im­me­di­ately after­ward to other US of­fi­cials in a pri­vate set­ting, as well as a read­out to the press.”

Trump al­lies said the Pres­i­dent thinks the pres­ence of sub­or­di­nates im­pairs his abil­ity to es­tab­lish a rap­port with Putin, and that his de­sire for se­crecy may also be driven by em­bar­rass­ing leaks that oc­curred early in his pres­i­dency.

The meet­ing in Ham­burg hap­pened sev­eral months after news or­gan­i­sa­tions re­vealed de­tails about what Trump had told se­nior Rus­sian of­fi­cials dur­ing a meet­ing in the Oval Of­fice. Trump dis­closed clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion about a ter­ror plot, called for­mer FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey a “nut job” and said fir­ing Comey had re­moved “great pres­sure” on his re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia.

Con­gress­man Eliot En­gel, chair­man of the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, said his panel will form an in­ves­tiga­tive sub­com­mit­tee whose tar­gets will in­clude seek­ing State Depart­ment records of Trump’s en­coun­ters with Putin, in­clud­ing a closed-door meet­ing in Helsinki last year.

Trump has taken ac­tions and po­si­tions seen as favourable to the Krem­lin. He has called Rus­sia’s elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence a “hoax”, sug­gested Rus­sia was en­ti­tled to an­nex Crimea, re­peat­edly at­tacked Nato al­lies, re­sisted ef­forts to im­pose sanc­tions on Moscow, and be­gun to pull US forces out of Syria.

Trump’s de­ci­sion to fire Comey and other at­tempts to con­tain the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion led the bureau in May 2017 to launch a coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence probe into whether he was seek­ing to help Rus­sia and if so, why.

It is not clear whether Trump has taken notes from in­ter­preters on other oc­ca­sions, but of­fi­cials said they were never able to get a re­li­able read­out of his two-hour meet­ing in Helsinki. Trump al­lowed no Cab­i­net of­fi­cials or aides in the room.

He also spoke at length to Putin at a ban­quet in Ham­burg, where only Putin’s in­ter­preter was present. Trump had a brief con­ver­sa­tion with Putin at a G20 sum­mit in Buenos Aires last month. Trump gen­er­ally has al­lowed aides to lis­ten to his phone con­ver­sa­tions with Putin.

Photo / AP file

There is no de­tailed record of what US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump said to Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Fin­land.

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